How to Give Forever

Peter G. Scotese, retired president and CEO of Springs Mills , Inc., and chairman emeritus of FIT’s Board of Trustees, has lived an extremely long life marked by hardship and resilience, adventure, bravery, fearless originality, and deep receptivity to change. Today, at 102, Scotese is vital, engaged, and vigorous. It’s hard not to think: This is what it looks like to be guided by unfailing integrity, imagination, honesty, intellectual curiosity—and a just-right balance of joie de vivre and intestinal fortitude.
Peter G. Scotese
Photo by Joe Carrotta

“Just as important as giving money is giving time, energy, ideas, and expertise. Give away your ingenuity! Use imagination to inspire others to give. Break with tradition. Never be afraid to ask for money. The worst that can happen is that they say no. But you might be surprised that you’ll get more than you asked for.”

The early years

Born in 1920 to humble circumstances in Philadelphia, young Pete Scotese never knew his father, who had died earlier that year. Eight years later, when the Great Depression made it impossible for his mother to support her four children, she enrolled her son in Girard College, a private preparatory boarding school for orphaned boys. At Girard, Pete washed dishes, cleaned buildings, and waited tables, all while learning languages, excelling in academics, and forming lifelong relationships with mentors. 

Peter Scotese in France during WWII
Peter G. Scotese in France during World War II

After graduating near the top of his class, Pete took a job as an accountant at Philadelphia’s Alfred M. Greenfield and Co. while attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Evening School of Business. Before long, World War II came calling. Commissioned as an anti-aircraft artillery officer, Pete was soon transferred to the infantry, where his knack for popping out of foxholes to attract sniper fire earned him the nickname “Jumping Jack.” Further acts of courage as a volunteer paratrooper in the European Theater garnered a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. Forty-five years later, when the war history of occupied Holland was being written, Scotese was identified as having conducted a daring rescue of a Dutch underground leader who’d been scheduled for execution the following day. Driving up to the German prison in a chaplain’s jeep—sporting a shoulder holster and a leather jacket confiscated from an enemy glider pilot—Scotese demanded and received the man’s release. Ten minutes later, realizing they’d been tricked, the Nazis began a high-speed chase. After narrowly escaping, Scotese spent 10 days in hiding until the Canadian army arrived to take the official German surrender. In 2005 the Dutch city of Rotterdam honored Scotese’s heroism. 

A career is born

Back stateside, he answered a newspaper ad from Indian Head Mills that said, “Wanted: Sales trainee. Long hours, hard work, no car, low compensation. If you’re successful, you might get a little bit rich. If you’re not, we’ll fire you.” He got the job … and began selling over-the-counter piece goods for home sewing. Scotese rose from sales trainee to salesman to regional salesman, general sales manager, general manager, and finally vice president. 

In 1963, Federated Department Stores invited him to become chairman of the Boston Store division in Milwaukee and a corporate vice president. 

He gladly accepted, despite knowing nothing about retailing or department stores. But he did understand how to create a return on investment. 

After conducting a competitive landscape survey of all the department stores in a 30-mile radius, he discovered that nearly every store was selling not much more than “corsets and candy” at budget price points. He took Boston Store upscale, stocking it with moderate and high-end products. His first big retail splash was an Italian import fair, featuring a million dollars of retail goods from Florence and Rome. He timed the  fair to align with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster show starring Michaelangelo’s Pietà ; Scotese purchased an $8,000 bronze reproduction, and ran a full-page newspaper ad announcing the Boston Store’s display of “the world’s only reproduction Pietà.” Set in a grotto, it was flanked by yet another reproduction: Michaelangelo’s David. 

This over-the-top promotion catapulted the store to preeminence in better goods. But Scotese was far from done. He invited the Florentine opera to perform in the store; built Wisconsin’s first enclosed shopping mall; and promoted a week of Summerfest, in which local businesses came together to support the arts. Store sales and profits skyrocketed. 

But not everything Scotese did was about profit; he was committed to supporting the professional advancement of women and minorities. In December of one year, a group of Black men from the inner city marched into Boston Store, angry that they were not being hired; they carried signs saying “It’s gonna be a black Christmas.” Inviting them to sit down and talk, Scotese discovered that his company’s job application prevented people with criminal records from being hired. Scotese changed the rule and hired the group’s leader, saying, “You’re in charge. Hire everyone in your group for the Christmas season. Any complaints by customers or employees? They’ll be yours to deal with.” This win-win situation resulted in the Milwaukee Boston Store hiring its first Black menswear buyer.

The Springs Mills years

Six years later, Scotese was offered a chance to run a corporation. Springs Mills, in South Carolina, was one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of finished fabrics and home furnishings; it had 18 plants and 22,000 employees. Scotese became the first non-family president in the company’s history—and there he earned his place as a textile industry leader. 

Scotese took on the huge challenge of reinventing the Springs Mills company culture, replacing long-standing paternalistic practices with empowering, bottom-up management. He established a profit-sharing pension plan that covered all employees, including those at the entry level; he manifested his own version of corporate citizenship by offering community activities not only to employees, but to entire neighborhoods where Springs Mills had plants.

Central to Scotese’s success was finding new ways of combining business with the arts. Under his leadership, Springs Mills became the first business to champion a crossover between apparel design and home products. Calling upon the artistic vision of fashion designers Emilio Pucci and Bill Blass, Springs Mills added color and print to bedding, turning it from a commodity into a kind of household art. Scotese arranged for the company to access the Metropolitan Museum’s entire fabric collection, applying its historical designs to sheets, bedspreads, and towels. The “Springmaid Metropolitan Museum of Art Adaptations” paid the museum 5% in royalties, totaling almost $3 million. A similar deal was struck with the Guggenheim Museum. Springs Mills also supported the Museum of Modern Art’s Photography Now program, collaborated with Princess Grace of Monaco on tabletop designs based on her flower arrangements, and sponsored a non-juried annual art show for citizen artists residing in North and South Carolina.

“I would like to be remembered as someone who did an institution or individual a lot of good. I chose to give to FIT, where I was board chair, and which was my love for more than 50 years. FIT is highly stimulating—with an electricity that fits my own intellectual curiosity and my interest in the arts.”

Boardrooms and beyond

Scotese has spoken, written, and consulted on topics ranging from executive compensation and top management succession to problems affecting family-owned businesses. He served as a vice chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s business committee, and he was a member of MOMA’s photographic committee, and supported many other civic, community, and business activities. 

Over the years, Scotese has been honored with many prestigious awards. In 1981 he received the Horatio Alger Award, which recognizes business leaders who have risen from humble beginnings; in 1983 he was named Textile Man of the Year by the Textile Section of the New York Board of Trade; and in 1999 the Home Fashion Products Association designated him a Dean of the Industry. In 1982, Scotese received an honorary Doctor of Textile Science degree from the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science.

Scotese and FIT

Scotese first joined FIT’s Board of Trustees in 1970, when he was working at Springs Mills; he served until 1996, the final 13 years as chairman. Upon stepping down, he was named chairman emeritus. In 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by SUNY through FIT, and in 2015 received the college’s President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Over his 50-plus years of service at FIT, Scotese has been widely appreciated for creating and supporting groundbreaking efforts that advance the college’s status as a creative, business, and technology leader. He championed gender and racial diversity on FIT’s boards and committees. He has donated more than $1 million and persuaded others to give $10 million.To recognize his support in galvanizing funding, FIT’s CAD/COM Computer Lab bears Scotese’s name; and FIT’s DTech Lab, an innovation facility where students and faculty team up to solve real-world problems, launched the PETE Prize for Entrepreneurs in 2022. The prize recognizes student business plans based on innovative design-thinking and comes with a cash award of $30,000 funded by Edwin Goodman, a former chair of the FIT Board of Trustees and a partner of Activate Venture Partners.

But it is what “PETE” stands for that tells you what you need to know about the man himself: Passionate, Empathetic, Tenacious, and Enthusiastic. All Peter G. Scotese himself might add is to remind us of his abiding belief in the importance of personal integrity—and his absolute faith in the power of generous giving.

“At age 102, I can tell you the secret of longevity: Give back and live with integrity. There is therapeutic value in Giving to others. It’s much more than self-satisfaction: Giving keeps you going. It helps you live longer. When you’re focused on helping others, there’s not a lot of time to worry about your own problems. Einstein says we were put on this planet to help others. Be like Einstein.”